Passage to India
Getting lost in the captivating places of India, the birthplace of yoga, can lead you to find new parts of yourself.
By Meera Subramanian and Yoga Journal
To travel to India, the land of yoga’s origins, is to enter a country that is in constant transformation, yet somehow timeless. It is a land with a temple or shrine around every corner, where the sacred is revered in every river and mountain, where the search for enlightenment is in the air. For many yoga students in the West, a trip to India goes beyond sightseeing. It can be a sacred journey and a deepening of one’s yoga practice, as well as pure adventure.
“If you’re looking for devotional or meditative inspiration, India is the source,” says Darren Main, a yoga teacher who leads retreats on the subcontinent. Indeed, in India you can intimately experience the culture that gave birth to yoga, tapping into both its ancient roots and its living tradition.
Some travelers to India start their trip by setting an intention for personal exploration, with hearts dedicated to transformation, like the pilgrims of old. “I felt this pull to go there that I couldn’t explain,” says Jenay Martin, a yoga teacher and photographer who has traveled to India four times. “Each time I go, I set an intention for my journey, and it ends up changing me powerfully.”
“I longed to make my first pilgrimage to India because I knew it would be like coming home,” says Dana Flynn, the founder of Laughing Lotus Yoga, who took a solo trip to India. “I had heard many claims about the life-changing powers of India. I wanted to see for myself. It melted my malaise and taught me the true meaning of compassion.”
Should you feel called to a similar journey of the heart, where should you direct your path in the magical, mythical, and sometimes maddening place that is India? The answer is as infinite as India is diverse. You can seek out the locations of the mythic escapades of the gods and goddesses, mortals and monkeys of India’s epic stories. You can gaze upon awe-inspiring cultural sites, including ancient Hindu temples, the birthplaces of Buddhism, and the jewels of Islamic architecture. The journey can be an exploration of sacred rivers or hallowed mountains. Or it can be a pilgrimage to the study centers of modern yoga’s founders—T. Krishnamacharya, K. Pattabhi Jois, B.K.S. Iyengar, Swami Vivekananda—the names alone evoking a legacy that has linked East and West for more than a century.
While it may be tempting to visit every corner of the country, exploring a handful of places deeply can be most rewarding. We have chosen to introduce you here to five special sites that have been spiritual and cultural hubs for millennia. Each offers an encounter with the living history of yoga—an up-close look at the elaborately woven tapestry of myth, history, and contemporary life that is India. These five destinations reflect India’s reverence for the transcendent in nature—the sea, the holy river, the mountains, caves, and rocks. And each invites you to linger, become absorbed, and perhaps learn something about your own inner landscape, as well.
“Each of India’s holy places echoes with a pulse, a whisper of those who also stood in our shoes: seekers, dreamers, thinkers, practitioners,” says Kate Holcombe, the director and founder of San Francisco’s Healing Yoga Foundation and a contributing editor at Yoga Journal. “Visiting these ancient sites, where hundreds of thousands have walked, prayed, loved, struggled, hoped before us, is a way of honoring the lineage of the great souls from whom we have received the teaching of yoga.”
Wherever you go in India, plan on surrender. For all that it has to offer, travel here can be daunting. The heat, the crowds, the unpredictable train schedules can overwhelm. But the obstacles may also offer great lessons.” India will teach you to surrender to the cycles of life,” says Eric Shaw, founder of Prasana Yoga. “In India, one goal of yoga is firmly in place: relying on the rhythms of the universe. This is so strong here. It will erode your ego more powerfully than any stateside yoga practice can.”
Indeed, India is best approached with a grand openness. Let go of your expectations and be open to the world. Think of these five destinations as thresholds, or tirthas, to cross over into regions rich with myth, devotion, and friends you haven’t yet met.
Lose Yourself in the City of Prayer
Varanasi, Uttar Pradesh
The ever-present clanging of puja bells echoing from innumerable temples and shrines and the flickering of ghee lamps illuminating the Ganges River at night bring to life the words of cultural geographer Rana P.B. Singh: “Varanasi,” he writes, “is the city that is a prayer.”
One of the oldest inhabited cities on Earth and one of India’s holiest, the essence of Varanasi is faith. The very stones of this teeming city are said to be imbued with the presence of Shiva, who myths say appeared here as an endless column of light at the beginning of time. Pilgrims come from all over India to honor Shiva and Ganga, the river that’s seen as a living goddess. A visit here, they believe, can be a step toward liberation from the cycle of birth and rebirth.
The daily rhythms and rituals of the city follow the rising and setting of the sun. Walk the ghats, sets of steps leading into the water, that line the western bank of the Ganges River, and you’ll see pilgrims bathing at sunrise or reaching their palms to the flames ofaarti, ghee lamp offerings, each evening.
Witnessing these moments can give insight into the deeper meaning of familiar practices, says David Moreno, a yoga teacher who leads tours in India. “Everything comes to life for me at sunrise in Varanasi,” he says. “When you see people lined up in adoration to the coming light, you understand that Sun Salutations are a prostration to the giver of life,” he says. “It puts my practice in a timeless context. It lets me feel like I’m part of a continuum.”
Where Buddha Preached: In nearby Sarnath, find the serene ruins of Deer Park, where Buddha gave his first sermon. A five-hour train ride will take you to Bodh Gaya, where he reached nirvana.
Seek Yoga at the Source
Some 500 miles upriver from Varanasi, nestled deep in a forested gorge where the holy Ganges descends from the Himalayas, lies the town of Rishi-kesh, a place to practice yoga in the footsteps of the ancient yogis. Long an out-of-the-way refuge from the world, Rishikesh today is a lively hub for yoga students and international travelers. The ashrams, temples, and shops clustered along the banks of the Ganges hum with activity from dawn to dusk. Shopkeepers bargain with backpackers; chai wallahs sell hot, milky tea; saffron-clad sadhus seek alms. But peace is always within reach at the river shore, where white sand shimmers with sunlight diffused in mist.
The region (including the nearby town of Haridwar) is considered a tapobhumi, a place of retreat and meditation. The forests around Rishikesh attracted fervent yoga practitioners throughout history, such as the Sage Vasistha (namesake of the pose Vasisthasana and one of the authors of the Vedas). The town’s many ashrams and retreat centers keep these traditions alive, offering serious students of yoga a chance to study, practice, and commune with others on the same journey. Popular spots include the Parmath Niketan Ashram, which hosts an annual yoga festival each March, and the headquarters of the Divine Life Society, where Swami Sivananda resided for years. (His student, Swami Vishnu-devananda was one of the first to teach hatha yoga in the West in the 1960s.)
The Ganges River is relatively clean here, and its sparkling white-sand beach is a serene place for a soul-purifying plunge. “Normally you go on pilgrimage to see a deity, but here it is a deity that is coming to you,” says Raghunath, a US-based yoga teacher who teaches Hindu devotional traditions and leads trips to India. “It flows down from the Himalayas, coming from the celestial plane and breaking through the material universe, giving you its benediction. It heals you and cleanses the heart.”
Practicing yoga in a place where generations of yogis have bent their bodies in supplication is like tapping into a deep spiritual spring, says Pandit Vamadeva Shastri, director of the American Institute of Vedic Studies, who leads annual retreats here: “A few days here can sustain one’s practice for the rest of the year, if not for years to come.”
Follow the Path of Legend
Walk amid ruins of palaces and temples and the bewitching, boulder-strewn landscape of Hampi, and it’s easy to imagine yourself surrounded by the royal city that once thrived here or even by mythical characters from the Ramayana, the Hindu epic. This area is the legendary Kishkinda, realm of the monkey gods. Here Rama, on his quest to rescue his kidnapped wife Sita, is said to have met the monkey god Hanuman.
The remains of more than 500 stone monuments are scattered over the 16-square-mile area of this UNESCO World Heritage site, which is the former capital of the Vijayanagar empire (in power from the 14th to 16th centuries). Amid the gracious ruins of medieval Indian culture, you’ll also find humbler shrines expressing the local villagers’ heartfelt devotion to Rama, Sita, and Hanuman. Across the Tungabhadra River from Hampi is the tiny village of Anegundi, which you can reach by a coracle ferry (a large, round floating basket). Here you’ll find the Shabari Ashram, where Rama’s footprint is preserved, and Hanuman’s birthplace, Anjanadri Hill. Climb its 570 steps to view the Hanuman Temple and a sweeping vista. (Watch out for Hanuman’s earthly brethren, the playful wild monkeys that live among the rocks.)
In Hampi, says Marla Apt, an Iyengar Yoga teacher who goes to India annually, you’ll see pilgrims worshiping at intact shrines among the ruins, infusing them with a living presence. “What makes places feel dead or alive is how the people there behave,” says Apt. In Hampi, she says, as in much of India, past and present are interwoven into a fine cloth. ” When you’re there, you appreciate the ancientness of India and feel yourself in that time and place. It’s really magical.”
See the Divine in the Human
Mamallapuram, Tamil Nadu
Along the white-sand shores of the Bay of Bengal, just south of Chennai, lies the village of Mamallapuram (formerly called Mahabalipuram), a place to marvel at the sacred art and stories of India. Some 1,400 years ago, under Pallava rule, Mamallapuram was a thriving port, where hundreds of craftsmen labored to create some of the most noteworthy shrines and sculptures of India. Today, it is a dreamy, jasmine-scented beach town, where you’ll wake to the rhythmic clinking of artisans’ chisels crafting new artwork and keeping the ancient tradition alive, and fall asleep to the sound of the waves washing over legendary ruins buried at the shore.
Here you can explore the mythologies of India. Step into shrines sculpted as chariots of the gods, led by their larger-than-life mounts, including Nandi (the bull ridden by Lord Shiva) and Lord Indra’s giant elephant. Gaze upon an image of Durga, victorious over the slain demon Mahisha, or enter the cool shade of a man-made cave where artisans carved the legend of Krishna lifting up a mountain to protect a village from Indra’s wrath. Here, Kate Holcombe explains, you can absorb the Indian concept of darshan, beholding the Divine. “These images, and the stories they tell, serve as a mirror for us. When we can see our own human qualities in the gods or goddesses, we can also see the Divine in the human, in ourselves,” she says.
You can also discover here one of the oldest known images of an asana: a carving of a yogi (perhaps the epic warrior Arjuna) holding Tree Pose, part of one of the world’s largest bas reliefs, carved into a wall of stone a hundred feet across.
Climb the hill that dominates the town for views of the sunset and the stone spires of the Shore Temple. Perhaps, looking out to the sea as a wave retreats, you can imagine the six other temples that legend says once stood beside the Shore Temple. The 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami swept away sand, revealing submerged structures, hinting that the myth may just be true.
City of Temples: While the arts flourished in Mamallapuram, monastic and temple culture thrived in nearby Kan-chipuram, the capital of the Pallava Empire. Visit majestic temples that have been active for close to 1,400 years, enjoy the town’s bustling silk markets, and watch weavers make the richly patterned saris the region is known for.
Connect With the Eternal in Nature
Mount Arunachala, Tamil Nadu
Drive southwest across the Deccan Plateau from Chennai, through emerald-green rice paddies scattered with coconut trees, and your view will be dominated by a single, majestic form: Mount Arunachala. Seen as a sacred manifestation of the god Shiva, the mountain has attracted devotees for millennia and today draws travelers seeking a quiet place to contemplate the transcendent in nature.
India scholar Diana Eck writes that Mount Arunachala is said to have “erupted from the earth at the dawn of creation,” a mountain of flame transformed into rock. As though still drawn to the light, pilgrims come by the thousands during the full moon to circumambulate the mountain. Each year during an autumn festival, a great beacon fire, using more than 7,000 pounds of ghee for fuel and a 1,000-foot wick, is lit atop the mountain.
In Tiruvannamalai, a town at the foot of the mountain, the Arunachaleswara Temple reverberates with the chant Om namah sivaya each morning. But silence prevails outside of town at the Sri Ramana Maharshi Ashram. Here, the modern Indian guru lived from 1922 to 1950, teaching a yoga of reflection and self-inquiry, often through his silent presence alone. Today, travelers can spend time in retreat at the ashram (write in advance), starting the day chanting with young monks from an adjoining school for the Vedas and enjoying vegetarian meals prepared with dairy from resident cows.
Down a dappled path into the woods are the cave hermitages where the guru meditated from 1899 to 1922. Here you can sit undisturbed in the cool of a small white-washed room, meditating in the grounding energy of the cave’s embracing space. Or take a stroll higher up the mountain to breathe in the expansive views of the valley, seeing how the temples in the town below dwindle before the soaring grandeur of nature’s monument.
Savor the Journey: Somewhere along your journey in South India, be sure to stop on the side of the road to sip young coconut water. Let the vendor cleave the coconut with a machete, and scoop out the tender flesh with a spoon. Resting in the shade, watch life pass by and marvel at all that is India. Remember the intention you set and the exhilaration and perhaps exasperation that the country inspires, and know that when you return home, you will be indelibly changed.
Journalist Meera Subramanian is writing a book about environmental issues in India.